In Lebanon, a War's Lethal Harvest
Threat of Unexploded Bombs Paralyzes the South

By Anthony Shadid
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, September 26, 2006

DEIR QANOUN, Lebanon -- The messages scrawled in red on the concrete, stone and cinder-block walls near Ali Saqlawi's house are worded differently but mean the same: "CB," "cb strike," "cluster strike." Arrows point with deceptive precision in every direction. Saqlawi, a mechanic, needs no warning. He has already seen the thousands of bomblets the size of cellphones that littered his town, the detritus from hundreds of cluster bombs fired in the last days of the 33-day war with Israel.

"I saw them where your feet are," he said, pointing to the ground next to the rubble of what was once his house and garage. He waved toward the parched lemon groves across the cratered street. "You'll find them there," he said. He pointed at the olive orchard behind him, awaiting a reluctant harvest by workers too fearful to enter. "It's all bombs over there," he said.

The scourge of munitions from the cluster bombs now littering southern Lebanon, mostly American-made but some manufactured in Israel, will be a "lasting legacy," the United Nations has said. U.N. officials estimate that the Israeli military fired 90 percent of the bombs during the last 72 hours of the conflict, which began on July 12 after Hezbollah fighters seized two Israeli soldiers in a cross-border raid and ended with a cease-fire on Aug. 14. As many as 1 million of the bomblets are unexploded, they say, wounding or killing three people a day. The threat of stumbling across a bomblet has paralyzed life in parts of the south that depend on the harvest of tobacco and now-abandoned groves of bananas, olives and citrus.

"No one's going into the orchards," the 27-year-old Saqlawi said.

His brow sweaty, he watched a bulldozer claw at the wreckage of his house and business. Gray dust billowed up; iron rods still crusted with concrete snapped forward. To the side were the contents of his garage -- mangled car parts and burned tires.

"Rubble and bombs," he said.

International law does not prohibit the use of cluster bombs, which can spread dozens, sometimes hundreds, of smaller munitions, or bomblets, over an area the size of two football fields. But because of their wide dispersal, human rights groups have condemned their use in civilian areas, saying they violate international bans on indiscriminate attacks. The Reagan administration imposed a six-year ban on their sale to Israel after a congressional investigation determined that Israel had misused the weapons during its 1982 invasion of Lebanon. The State Department said it is investigating whether Israel violated agreements with the United States on their use during the conflict this summer.

U.N. officials have said they are still grappling with a problem whose scope has grown by the day. About 100 de-miners on contract to the United Nations are trying to defuse munitions in which as many as two in five of the bomblets failed to detonate. They said many of the bomblets might have failed to explode because they struck soft ground, were snared in trees or other obstructions or were fired too low to the ground to detonate on impact.

Early on, officials estimated that cluster munitions littered 400 sites, anywhere from a house to an entire village. The number now stands at 590, and U.N. officials said they are dumbfounded by the intensity of the firing in the war's last days, when it was clear a cease-fire was approaching.

"It's impossible for me to work out what the logic was," said David Shearer, the U.N. humanitarian coordinator for Lebanon. "To me, it just seems outrageous that it would happen as it did."

Added Chris Clark, the program manager for the U.N. Mine Action Coordination Center: "What we've seen are strikes on top of strikes on top of strikes on top of strikes. It's tantamount to shooting a dead body 20 times."

The Israeli military has limited its statements on the matter, reiterating that the munitions are not banned. Last weekend, a spokesman for the Israel Defense Forces pointed to a public statement first made during the war. "All the weapons and munitions used by the IDF are legal under international law and their use conforms with international standards," it read.

Hezbollah launched an average of about 100 rockets a day into Israel during much of the conflict, climbing to 240 near the end, with many of the rockets landing in populated civilian areas. Some U.N. officials speculated that the Israeli military's inability to stop the rocket firing led it to use weapons that sprayed across a wider area. The result was what U.N. officials euphemistically refer to as "contamination" -- a density of unexploded munitions higher than that left in Kosovo in 1999 and in Iraq after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.

In the 2 1/2 years after the Kosovo conflict, de-miners cleared fewer than 25,000 cluster bomblets, Clark said. In four weeks here, they have cleared more than 30,000 bomblets. Adding to the problem, the landscape remains littered with as many as 400,000 land mines left by Israel and its Lebanese allies during the occupation that ended in 2000.

So far, U.N. officials say, exploding cluster bomblets have killed 14 people and wounded 90 since the war ended.

"In the areas where there were strikes, it's the most extensive contamination I've ever seen," said Clark, who has worked in Kosovo, Sudan, Kuwait, Iraq, Bosnia and Afghanistan. It "is just off the scale."

In the town of Majdel Selm, a short distance from where bulldozers were demolishing the bombed-out remnants of houses, Simon Lovell, a de-miner with the British firm Bactec International, pointed to an American-made bomblet that he had marked off with tape and wooden stakes. Farther off, amid peach, orange and olive trees, lay three others, easy to miss with an untrained eye.

"We treat them almost as a minefield," he said.

Lovell, a former naval diver with a tanned face and adrenaline-fueled exuberance, used to disarm sea mines. He pointed out the bomblets, examples of what he called "a pretty unsmart bomb." The coming rains, he said, would bury them deeper, making them even harder to spot. When they are detonated, they can hurl shrapnel 40 yards.

"The task here is going to be immense," he said.

Shrapnel pockmarked the unfinished two-story house perched over the orchard, its windows still broken. The owner, Marwan Abu Taam, said he and his wife, Shirin Rida, stayed with relatives during the war. When he returned, he walked through the field three or four times without seeing the bomblets, despite the tell-tale signs: a piece of white plastic that keeps the bomblets in tidy rows inside the shell and the white ribbon that helps guide them as they fall. His wife and 2-year-old son, Ali, won't walk outside.

"No one can move anywhere on the land," she said, as her son leaned against her leg.

Southern Lebanon, a furrowed land of valleys and rock-strewn hills, is one of the country's poorest regions. Half the population relies entirely on agriculture. Aid officials say some farmers have taken to burning their unharvested crops in hopes of detonating the bomblets.

Along the barren hills outside Majdel Selm, several goats killed by the bomblets were piled up, the stench of their rotting carcasses carried by the breeze.

"You know how you sprinkle seeds on the ground?" asked Hussein Ali, a 47-year-old municipal worker who had brought Lovell to a hilltop where dozens of bomblets lay unexploded. "That's what the bombs are like down here."

Ali and some of his neighbors acknowledged that there were Hezbollah fighters in the town. But as they looked at the bare hillsides, the men wondered aloud about the military logic of targeting such fields with cluster munitions.

"Maybe if there were trees or something," Ali said.

In Saqlawi's village of Deir Qanoun, Lovell found four holes where residents had picked up 1,013 bomblets on their own. Residents said landowners were paying the more daring among them $1 to $2 for each bomblet they disposed of. The bomblets were piled in crates and boxes. Along the road, a tractor driver asked a passerby, "Will I die if I go in there?"

Down the street, Saqlawi hopped among the piles of rubble where he used to live with his wife and 6-month-old son, Hussein.

"Everything's gone," he said, "the house, the trees, the olive harvest. Everything's gone."

He gave a bitter grin. "Praise God," he said.

Correspondent Scott Wilson in Jerusalem contributed to this report.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company